Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Monday, November 2, 2015

Tolling I-66 Inside the Beltway: Adding Tolls AND Traffic to Pay for “Multi-Modal” Transportation.


While a bit outside of our Reston bailiwick, the extended dialogue on tolling I-66 inside the Beltway—mostly out of Richmond and NoVa discussions—and how that might be done appears to be running off the rails—if an interstate highway can be on rails.  Nonetheless, the latest proposal for I-66 inside the Beltway may set an ugly precedent for other highways closer to Reston, particularly the Dulles Toll Road (DTR) that would be inequitable, inappropriate, and ineffective in relieving congestion.    
 

As a starting point, let us say that we have no objection to the reasonable tolling of highways or other roads.  The key goal of a toll road should be to generate toll revenues that maintain and improve the tolled road in a way that is equitable while striving to reduce congestion.  That leads us to two key tolling principles:

  •  The tolls:  Everyone pays tolls and they pay the same toll per mile at the same time except discounts for congestion-alleviating HOV car and van pools and public transit. 
    • No separate HOT lanes for the one percent, which does virtually nothing to alleviate the congestion for the other 99%, while “free loaders” remain stuck in traffic.  HOT lanes merely give drivers a way around traffic by accepting a self-imposed tax that has virtually nothing to do with improving traffic flow or generating needed revenue--unless the tolls are prohibitive for most.
    • To reduce congestion most effectively, we prefer an HOV-3 requirement over the longer term (vice HOV-2) with steep toll reductions, maybe a third of the SOV toll, maybe none at all.    
    • Moreover, tolls should be distanced-based as well as time-of-day/ “peak period”/dynamic tolling, reflecting users actual use—unlike either the Dulles Greenway or the DTR.   (In particular, by being roughly at the mid-point of the DTR, Reston DTR users pay about twice the price per mile that others pay for using the full length of the toll road.
  •  The revenues:  All the revenue from the tolls goes to maintaining and improving the tolled road, not other transportation programs or projects, much less non-transportation uses.  We have stated this frequently in the past regarding the ill-conceived $6 billion funding of Silver Line construction through DTR tolls. 

Now on the table for I-66, according the Washington Post, is a proposal that violates several of these principles:  If you drive alone east to work inside the Beltway during the “peak period,” you will pay a toll; if you drive west even alone, you won’t pay a toll.   HOVs (2-person now, 3-person ca. 2020) and transit would not be tolled.  The tolls would reverse direction during the peak period when you’re driving west to home at the end of the day.   As a result, people who live in DC who drive by themselves to work in Tysons would pay nothing to use I-66 while SOVs reversing that commute could be paying $17 per day.   


Officials, including the Governor, offer a little bit of sugar (for a short-term high) to help the toll medicine go down: 
  • HOVs will continue to use I-66 with no toll for now; that’s a sucker’s play.
  • SOVs  will be able to use I-66 inside the Beltway during rush period, not just HOV vehicles as is now the case, if you’re willing to pay the toll.  Years--maybe decades--from now, they will be cut out again when traffic growth demands it. 
  • The toll only applies to “rush hour,” but that can be changed later to full-day tolling and almost certainly will.  The tolling camel’s nose—and the needed tolling equipment--would be under the tent. 

All this points to the prospect of ever expanding and increasing tolls:  all day vs. rush periods, all vehicles vs SOVs, both directions vs. one, and, of course, increasing toll rates.  Just ask DTR users.  Once the principle of tolling is accepted and the equipment is installed, the rest is as certain to follow as night follows day.  


The key problem is, as the article notes, “The toll revenue left over after the expenses of operating the HOT lanes system inside the Beltway will go to supporting alternative transportation — carpooling and commuter buses, for example.”   Why not lower the toll to meet just the cost of maintaining and improving I-66, at least inside the Beltway, if there is a surplus?  


I-66 tolling should not become a “cash cow” for agenda-driven bureaucrats, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission in this case, to spend on even less cost-effective transportation modes, nominally to ease I-66 congestion.  While it’s true that drivers don’t pay the full cost of the roads they use (without tolls), we’ve never seen public transit of any type, much less bike riding or walking, cover its cost, much less help pay for roadway improvements.  Why should this be true? And the extent these “multi-modal” alternatives reduce commuting traffic is both minimal and transient, especially for the long-distance commuting that characterizes the I-66 corridor.  

A quick look at the Supplemental Report (2013), Figure 2.7, prepared by VDOT's consultant on the I-66 inititiave shows how cost-ineffective using tolls or taxpayer dollars for "multi-modal" transportation is.  In its "Refined Package (Peak-Only Tolls" option, throughput on I-66 inside the Beltway increases by about 40,000 people per day or a 9% increase in throughput from MWCOG's CLRP+.  Only 4,000 of those additional people will be moved public transit, about 10%, yet both the total cost and the cost per passenger to add those 4,000 people is 74% higher than the cost of adding POVs  as the table below shows.  Moreover, spending an extra $33 million per year on transit results in only a 0.9% shift in transportation mode productions from private vehicles to transit over 25 years.  In an era when our governments are badgered by their inefficient use of taxpayer (or, in this case, toll payer) monies, this is a perfect example of why that criticism continues.  If the intention of the I-66 plan is to increase I-66's throughput, the most cost-effective way to do so is to improve (widen) the highway; subsidizing added transit routes is a relative waste of money.  

 



The basic 2012 consultant’s report for VDOT guiding the I-66 initiative (during the McDonnell administration with amendments under the McAulliffe administration as recently as two weeks ago) also identifies some 60 bicycle and pedestrian improvements that the “surplus” I-66 tolls could fund.  Here is what GreaterGreaterWashington says enthusiastically about the improvements:


The report includes 60 bike/ped projects which include trail improvements to the Mt.Vernon, Custis, Four Mile Run, W&OD, Route 110, Washington Blvd and Arlington Blvd Trails; connector trails; bike facilities added to the Route 27 bridge over Route 110 and the Meade Bridge; bikeshare expansion and parking additions along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and in Falls Church; Rosslyn Circle improvements, including a tunnel; bike lanes; and bike parking at Metro Stations. The list is too long to go into, so if curious, you should check it out starting on page 3-76 of the report.


The only roadway improvements explicitly identified in the proposal are to widen the western end of I-66 to three lanes, including extending the eastbound I-66/DTR merge to three lanes for a mile rather than the current quick transition from four to two lanes of eastbound traffic at the East Falls Church Metrorail station.  The east end I-66 chokepoints remain unchanged.


 


The program’s only strategic goal appears to be to generate revenue for development of alternative transportation modes after covering I-66 maintenance expenses.  As explained above, the proposal does not intend to relieve congestion on I-66.  In fact, it adds single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) that are now banned from I-66 inside the Beltway during rush periods.  HOVs will not be discouraged from using the corridor because they will not be tolled.   


Longer term, the 2012 consultant’s report forecasts ”the increase in (transit) mode share is less than one percent for work trips.  That’s less than one percent shift to transit for some $23 million in annual toll revenues totaling more some one-half billion dollars in tolls by 2040 at the initial suggested toll rates.  I-66 is to become a “cash cow” for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission which will decide how those dollars are spent.  There are vague suggestions of future expansion of this portion of I-66, but they are always caveated by the huge restrictions on space to expand the highway by adding additional lanes.  More likely over time is the tolling of all vehicles in both directions all day will add to the revenues and keep congestion at a sufferable level, nothing more.


And tolling I-66 inside the Beltway will likely beget tolling and/or driving restrictions elsewhere.  Already Arlington County is examining how to prevent traffic diversion to its streets from I-66 because of the tolls.  Because the proposed tolls only apply to SOVs, not HOVs, in the near term, there actually shouldn’t be much of an impact because SOVs are already banned from I-66 during rush period.  That said, Arlington officials and residents see the long-term writing on the wall:  Tolls for everyone on I-66 that will divert traffic to Arlington’s already congested east-west rush hour streets.  And VDOT has not yet provided a traffic-impact analysis of its proposed tolling of I-66 even for the short-term.


Put simply, this I-66 inside the Beltway initiative is a new tax on highway transportation to pay for public transit, biking, and pedestrian transportation.   It is not intended to relieve or even stabilize congestion on I-66 despite public officials’ claims, which will grow as more people live outside and work inside the Beltway.  And it will almost certainly lead to higher tolls on the full range of vehicles using it over the full day every day over time.   

Buyer beware!

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